Photo by Jen Siska
Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow was convicted by a San Francisco jury Friday on 162 separate charges. Prosecutors painted a picture of him as a dangerous thug who ran a well-oiled crime machine dealing in drugs, illegal booze, and cigarettes—a heartless operator willing to murder in cold blood when necessary. As a result, Chow is likely facing life in prison, though he plans to appeal.
The conviction brought to an end nearly two years of legal wrangling and drama that was extensively followed by the local media. At one point, Chow's lawyers made headlines by trumpeting court documents they said implicated local government officials in unethical behavior at best and criminal corruption at worst—though none have been formally charged.
Twenty-nine men and women, including Chow, were named in the initial charging documents—a lurid 137-page affidavit that included the now-convicted former State Senator Leland Yee's apparent aspirations as an international arms trafficker. The now-disgraced Yee pleaded guilty in 2015 to a single racketeering count centered around his alleged arms business and propensity for taking bribes from government agents. (He's awaiting sentencing.)
I was closer than most to the case, covering it for a local magazine, a blog, and a weekly newspaper. I first met Chow at the San Francisco county jail, a soul-sucking compound in the belly of the city's "tech district," South of Market. The metal stools, thick glass windows, and ongoing clang of gates smashing shut made for onerous circumstances, but Raymond and I continued a dialogue throughout his trial. I always found him irreverent and upbeat—Chow's longtime girlfriend told me after the verdict that he's "insanely strong" and "very Buddha-like." He was willing to candidly discuss the government's accusations, proclaiming his innocence and describing Ghee Kung Tong, the local organization the feds say was involved in all sorts of illegal activity, as a "private self-help group." (Tongs are fraternal organizations for Chinese-Americans and are sometimes accused of being fronts for crime.)
It's a weird way to get to know another human being, through glass and over a telephone, via conversations the government is likely recording and will almost certainly use against the prisoner if possible. "I don't want to make friends like this," Chow told me during one visit. He later offered to cook us dinner when he got out.
I have never shaken Shrimp Boy's hand, but know more about his life than many of the people I talk with regularly on my current business reporting beat. That might have something to do with the way Chow throws out details of his life in a manner that seems almost reckless: During the trial, he admitted to doing blow, "cut[ting] someone up" at the age of nine (he details the experience in an unpublished memoir he shared with me), buying sex after getting out of prison, and even taking money from undercover FBI agents—though he maintained that he wasn't taking the dough in return for overseeing criminal behavior of his alleged associates.
Chow has undeniable charisma. He's big-mouthed and big-hearted and always (if you believe him) looking out for the immigrant community he's a part of. According to those close to him, the man is broke enough that he had to live with relatives and his girlfriend upon getting out of prison in 2002, his most recent stretch in the federal pen. (Somehow, though, Chow always seemed to wear tailored, two-piece suits on the outside.) If he does have millions of dollars, even his lawyers have no idea where all the cash is—they took on this marquee client pro bono.
Chow is represented by the office of famous defense attorney J. Tony Serra, which is how I started covering him in March 2014. I was lucky: Curtis Briggs, an associate of Serra's I had previously worked with, was angling to bring Chow on as a client. The man trusted me, and invited me over to listen to the call as he pitched Chow from their offices in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood—a building that reeked of weed. ("We do things differently," one of Serra's staffers told me.)
Tony Serra, right, an attorney for Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, pictured at left, listens to speakers at a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
I watched and listened as Briggs, a tall, handsome ginger in a suit, reeled in Shrimp Boy. The lawyer worked with a frenetic intensity and passion, and as we waited for the call, Briggs and former-gangster-turned-community-leader Eli Crawford offered their take on the local character.
To hear Chow's defenders and friends tell it, he's a community worker of sorts—Crawford described how he and Chow had been giving talks to the city's troubled youth. In Chow's memoir, he writes about speaking to high schools, middle schools, and at-risk youth—all to stop kids from following in his footsteps. He also writes that he partnered with a local politician and organized a series of talks about Chinese culture and heritage, for which the city presented him with an award honoring his contribution.
Of course, Chow also has a history of criminal activities including armed robbery, arson, and assault. In his early days, he was a gang enforcer and describes in the book the surgical precision he deployed when hurting enemies. "Beating someone down for a living is a science, ain't nothing random about it," Chow writes. "You appraise the target for strengths and weaknesses.... Inflicting injury is a delicate balance, like a recipe you season to taste. You have to be able to evaluate the level of damage you're doing while you work, and you can get pretty damned good at figuring in the cost of an injury right there, heat of the moment. Most importantly though, you have to know when to stop."
Later, Chow claims in the unpublished book, he founded a band of home invaders that robbed people all over the Bay Area. He also claimed to have run a brothel and siphoned $250,000 in profits from that operation into a growing coke distribution business back in the 1980s.
But according to Chow and his supporters, that criminal life ended in the 1990s. Indicted on racketeering charges in 1992 and convicted in 1996, Chow was part of a massive case that sent an atomic shockwave through the West Coast crime world. The feds disrupted what might have eventually become the largest heroin trafficking ring in America: The crooks' plan was to unify disparate gangs and start shipping in smack from the Golden Triangle in huge quantities.
Chow was released from prison in 2003 after cutting a deal with the feds and testifying against his former boss and mentor Peter Chong. (Chow claims in the memoir he had no choice because Chong betrayed him by paying for Chow's lawyer to take a lavish trip to Macao, sending her off with $60,000 worth of designer handbags—and an agreement to drop Shrimp Boy as a client.)
At the time, Chow recalls in his memoir, the decision to testify against Chong challenged his view of the world. "Some 30 years before, as a child, I'd set out to become a gangster," he writes. "I sacrificed 20 of those years—the prime of my youth—locked up, a key player in a world that completely vanished beneath my feet. All the gang leaders, dope pushers, scandalous ex-cons and tough guys I'd known were long forgotten and out of the game. Everybody I'd come up with in Chinatown had flipped or cooperated somehow. Once upon a time, they all believed in our code and lived by it. Now every last one had shattered it."
Those claims may have contributed to Serra taking on Chow as a client, since the attorney doesn't usually represent people who might be called snitches. "I represent a beautiful man who 12 years ago transcended a lifestyle most people never have the courage to walk away from," the defense attorney told me when I was writing for San Francisco. "He experienced a true epiphany after prison and became a role model for many unfortunates. He has devoted his life since then to bona fide social causes."
As a free man, Chow rubbed shoulders with celebrities, talking loudly and publicly of making a film about his life story. In 2006, after a community leader named Allen Leung was gunned down, Chow took over his post as top boss, or Dragon Head, of the Ghee Kung Tong. (Chow was convicted for arranging Leung's murder on Friday.)
Federal prosecutors vigorously argued during the trial that Chow's work in his community was nothing more than a disguise, offering him cover to oversee a group of old-school Chinatown thugs and their illicit money-making schemes. The gang allegedly trafficked drugs and untaxed hooch and smokes, plotted murders, laundered money.
For their part, Chow and his lawyers maintain the case is bigger than the one-time crook—and insist the investigation shed light on how power in San Francisco really works. They say Judge Charles Breyer was prejudiced against the defense from the start, chopping down their witness list from 48 to less than ten and refusing to consider evidence that implicated city officials. Briggs called Breyer an "attack dog whose sole job was to guard the elite's secrets and to usher Chow as quickly as possible to life in prison."
"It took a lot of balls to do this with America watching, but that is an indication of just how comfortable the people he is protecting really are, and it illustrates their time tested trust in him," Briggs added.
Both Serra and Briggs have vowed to appeal, and Briggs argues they have a good shot, though Friday's verdict was obviously a resounding win for the prosecutors—a victory observers were pretty much anticipating. As Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told the San Francisco Chronicle, "If you have tapes that are perfectly consistent with informant testimony, then juries convict a great deal of the time." He added that he expects the verdict to be upheld.
Whatever happens with the appeals, Chow is going to spend years behind bars, an environment he knows well by now. And the networks of local political power and crime he spent much of his life in will hum along without him. Shrimp Boy supposedly got his nickname from his grandmother in Hong Kong, who apparently believed that a pseudonym would protect the short kid from evil spirits.
Clearly, the moniker did not quite work as well as grandma hoped.
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